The fake ‘sun’ of The Tower of Somnus beat down on Kat, its arid heat robbing her of her breath. She shielded her eyes against the light, taking in the bleached-white, multi-story buildings around her. All of them were made out of some sort of dried mud stabilized with reeds that looked like the intergalactic version of adobe or stucco.
She lurched forward as a large, scaled arm draped itself forcefully over her shoulder. Nearby, Kat heard the air ‘whuff’ out of Kaleek’s lungs as Dorrik slapped him on the back.
“Breath deep, Miss Kat,” the lizard thrummed happily, “that’s the smell of fresh gottel spices simmering in the desert heat. If the Gardeners have created a heaven, that is what it would smell like.”
“Are you sure it would be this arid?” Kaleek coughed, his eyes watery and bleary. “Seriously, Dorrik, I can’t understand how your people adapted to a life without any humidity. I can barely choke the air down.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Dorrik grinned, pulling the two of them away from the adventurer’s hall and down a cobblestone walkway. “Now come on, I’ll buy the two of you a juice or something when we get to the Lokkel Enclave. Unless I miss my guess, this is Dasheera’s Sands, possibly the largest oasis in this sector of the third floor.”
Kat glanced back behind them. Where the adventurer’s hall in Whiteshell on the second floor had resembled a large church made of grey stone, this building was more of a cathedral. It towered above them, at least fifteen stories tall and made of the same hardened, white mud/cement as the rest of the city.
The main building was about five stories while a tower topped with bells and a large clock filled the other ten. The tower itself was undecorated, stark white and eye catching even at a distance. The warehouse-sized main building, on the other hand, was covered in mosaics of colored glass that shone in the harsh, desert sun.
Various heroic figures were depicted fighting off swarms of enemies or legendary monsters. Some held swords high while others unleashed streams of magic, but Kat couldn’t escape noticing that over half of the gleaming figures were lokkel.
“Are you sure we couldn’t have stayed in Whiteshell for one more day?” Kaleek complained, his whiskers drooping and tail dragging as he allowed Dorrik to pull him down the street. “I wanted at least one more day of swimming before I let you dry my lungs out and fill my fur with sand. By the elders, I swear that shit never comes out.”
“Quit being dramatic,” Dorrik rolled their eyes. “We can find you a guest room at my clan’s villa. The clan periodically pays a water elementalist to enchant a mist machine so whelps like you will stop whining about the lack of humidity.”
“That still doesn’t fix the sand,” Kaleek brushed a hand through his silky fur, as if looking for some offending dust. “Once it gets beneath the outer coat, it's impossible to get out . Worse, if you try and go for a swim to get it out it just turns into mud on you.”
Dorrik boomed with laughter, shaking their head as their crest rippled with mirth.
“Come now, Kaleek,” the giant lizard grinned, exposing a muzzle full of razor sharp teeth. “We both know that your avatar resets completely the next time you fall asleep. You just pop into being with full resource pools and your bound gear. Everything else just disappears.”
“It’s still there spiritually,” the otter grumbled. “A proper desoph can feel dirt in their undercoat even if it's just metaphorical.”
Kat smiled as her friends bickered good-naturedly. Despite their eagerness to trek up to level three, Dorrik made sure to let the party take two days off so that Kaleek could swim and enjoy the refreshing coastal environment. Neither of them came out and acknowledged the situation, but Kat could tell that Dorrik was trying to slow down a bit in order to give Kaleek a break before the third floor.
“What about you, Kat?” Dorrik grinned at her as they walked past a wall guarded by a pair of russet lokkel. “Are you ready for some gottel-seasoned qat steak, still on the spit? You haven’t enjoyed the Consensus until you’ve had a lokkel barbeque.”
“Wait,” Kat squinted a Dorrik, a half smile still on her face, “is that what we’re doing today? No daring raids? No grinding skills, just a party?”
“To be fair, Kat,” Kaleek interjected begrudgingly, “lokkels know how to party. They’re an old race and they age incredibly slowly. Younger races like yours focus on sending people into the tower to learn how to fight, but the lokkel also invest in craftsmen, musicians and cooks. Just like we earn skills and spells related to killing things, they gain abilities related to their art. It’s quite literally a magical experience.”
“That sounds great,” she responded slowly, allowing Dorrik to guide her toward a three-story, domed building, “but I still don’t understand why we’re spending our time meeting up with your clan. Don’t you spend most of each day with them?”
“I do,” Dorrik chuckled, “but my clan is spread out across a number of planets, moons and orbital habitats in three different systems. We don’t get a proper chance to meet and communicate in the waking world most days, especially with my off-kilter sleeping schedule.”
Their arms left Kaleek and Kat’s shoulders as Dorrik stepped away from them. They approached a lokkel guard covered in the same color of dusky scales. The guard was alert, eyes flicking from Dorrik to the two non-lokkel, its finely crafted, silvery armor barely making any noise as their hands touched the two sword hilts at its back.
“Dorrik of Clan Ahn approaches, requesting respite from the noon sun,” the lizard spread all four of their arms held akimbo, claws empty and exposed to the guard. “I have advanced to the third level and wish to enter the enclave for a period of time.”
“Welcome back to Clan Ahn, Dorrik,” the guard responded formally. “Is there anyone that would speak to your character so that I might grant you admittance?”
“I would request that Sikka Ahn speak for me,” Dorrik brought their arms close to their chest, crossing both pairs of well-muscled limbs in front them. “She has known me since I was but a whelp and would serve as an adequate judge of my character and mettle.”
“Sikka!” The guard stepped aside, letting another dark lokkel with a strange bulge just beneath the scales of their stomach exit the compound. “This individual claims to be Dorrik of Clan Ahn, a lokkel of honor and upstanding character.”
The new lokkel crossed their arms, taking on the same pose as Dorrik, a stern expression on her muzzle. Kat couldn’t help but notice how quickly she had arrived. Whatever this ceremonial greeting meant, it was both expected and well choreographed.
“This is Dorrik of Clan Ahn,” She announced, her voice slightly higher pitched but otherwise very similar to what Kat had come to expect from Dorrik. “They are an honorable and virtuous child of the Clan. I ask that they be granted entrance into the enclave once again.”
“Granted,” the guard intoned before their muzzle broke into a broad grin. “Good to see you again, Dorrik. You got up here faster than I expected. I’m out a couple marks thanks to you.”
“It’s your own fault, Basash,” Dorrik chuckled. “You lose marks every time you bet against me, yet you keep doing it.”
“One of these days you’ll mess up, Dorrik,” Basash slapped Dorrik’s shoulder with one of their upper arms, “and then I will be rich. It’s just a matter of time.”
Kat glanced over to Kaleek. The giant otter wasn’t even pretending to pay attention, instead focusing all of his attention on combing his claws through the thick fur of his arm in a vain attempt to remove some of the omnipresent sand.
“What the hell is going on?” she whispered, sauntering over to the otter.
“This is just what lokkel do,” Kaleek shrugged, slightly bored. “They build enclaves on every desert floor and the first time a player reaches it they have to formally request entrance. It’s a whole thing.”
“We’re only going to have to deal with this each time we reach a new floor right?” Kat frowned. “I’m not sure how keen I am on a community theater production each and every time we return to town.”
“Oh elders, no,” Kaleek guffawed. “I suppose if the door guard didn’t recognize Dorrik they might need to re-identify themselves, but everyone at the Ahn Villa knows them. This is all just a formality. The lokkel are a stuffy people, but ultimately, they’re probably one of my favorite races in the Consensus once you get past their thousand and one rituals that predate either of our species evolved opposable thumbs.”
“What do desoph do at these sorts of gatherings anyway?” Kat asked, eyes on the two chatting lokkel by the entrance to the villa.
“When we meet after being away for a while?” Kaleek smiled. “Nothing too major, we swim together, eat, groom, and usually have recreational sex. Again, I apologize but you are far too hairless and pink to participate in a proper desoph reunion.”
Kat was jolted from her conversation with Kaleek, by an affronted shout from the villa gate.
“And where do YOU think you’re going, Dorrik!” Sikka, the female lokkel stepped in front of their friend as they extricated themselves from Basash and began walking into the manor. “After months on D’Nai without a single letter, do you seriously think to just walk past your rearer?”
She put all four hands on her hips, staring down Dorrik sternly as she tapped a clawed foot on the eggshell-white floor.
“Sikka…” Dorrik shifted uncomfortably.
Kat squinted at them. Wait. Were they embarrassed?
“And not one comment about my ascension!” Sikka threw up her hands. “Here I am, no longer a rearer and finally a woman and you can’t say anything about it. I literally taught you how to hunt garr rats and hold a sword, and here you are ready to walk past me like I’m a complete stranger.”
“Sikka,” Dorrik’s crest fluttered uncontrollably. “I have guests here. I was going to talk to you at my welcoming ceremony, could we wait for-”
“Oh!” The lokkel’s eyes locked onto Kat. “This the human, Katherine.”
“Yes?” Kat responded hesitantly.
“Kraes has spoken a lot about you,” Sikka practically purred, her amber eyes sparking.
“Wait,” Dorrik interjected frantically, “what does Mom have to do with anything? I mean I talked with her a little bit about what was happening in the dreamscape but-”
“Hurry along, Dorrik,” Sikka waved at them dismissively, “I’ll catch up with you at the welcoming ceremony. Right now I would like to get to know your Katherine, woman-to-woman.”
“Dorrik’s Katherine?” Kat raised an eyebrow even as a chuckling Kaleek patted her on the shoulder.
“Good luck, Kat,” he walked past her, a grin stretched across his furry face as he approached Sikka, “and good to see you again, Sikka.”
“Stay out of trouble, Kaleek,” the big lizard nodded at him amiably as she slipped past the desoph on her way to Kat.
For a second she just stood there before the huge, grinning lizardwoman. Kat smiled at her weakly. Sikka was almost a head taller than Dorrik and more heavily muscled. Strapped to her back were the same twin swords that Kat had seen on every lokkel on the third floor.
“You can call me Kat, by the way,” she extended a hand toward the alien. “It’s what everyone calls me, anyway.”
“Kat,” Sikka’s eyes twinkled as she savored the word, her lower hands gently taking Kat’s into her own. “It’s good to formally meet you. Dorrik’s spoken a lot about you to their Mother, and at this point, the entire extended family is fairly curious about you.”
“Thanks?” Kat asked, unsure how to proceed.
“Oh, don’t worry about it too much,” Sikka chuckled, waving for Kat to follow her with her upper arms. “It's half that Dorrik managed to find the only non-feral human that’s wandered into The Tower of Somnus, and half that they were actually willing to enter into a long-term partnership with a third being.”
“They offered to raid a dungeon with me fairly quickly,” Kat cocked her head. “Maybe they just needed someone on short notice and I happened to fit the bill?”
“That doesn’t explain them changing their sleep schedule,” Sikka led Kat into a small courtyard filled with flowering succulents, heavy with water. “D’Nai has a day-night schedule that is around twenty-nine of your hours. Both Kaleek and Dorrik have had to keep track of your planet’s times in order to sync their times in the dreamscape up with you.”
“I-” Kat blinked in surprise as the big lizard took a seat on an oversized stone bench, “I didn’t know any of that. I guess we had so much going on that I just didn’t think of it.”
“Dorrik considers you a friend,” Sikka’s head bobbed. “They don’t really have any friends outside of their clutch and Kaleek. They spend all of their time training, studying and setting records. It has made them the idol of their cohort.”
“We have an entire generation of young lokkel that want to be just like Dorrik,” Sikka chuckled, leaning back on the bench as she patted a spot near them for Kat to sit down. “They just don’t realize how lonely Dorrik can be. Our entire quad and their cohort do what we can for Dorrik, but it’s hard when they isolate themselves on a moon covered in nothing but razor-sharp crystals and lokkel-sized spiders in order to develop their abilities.”
“Then why did you yell at Dorrik?” Kat asked, plopping herself down next to Sikka.
“They can get a bit stuffy,” Sikka laughed, “caught up in their own myth. I suppose succeeding at everything will do that to an entity.”
“Even when they got killed in the dreamscape, Dorrik somehow turned it into a success,” Sikka shook their head ruefully. “Rather than a failure, they became a hero, fighting off an entire army of stallesp and saving a probationary race from enslavement at the moles’ claws.”
“Every once in a while, Kraes and I will try to deflate Dorrik a little,” she nudged Kat conspiratorially, “bring them back down to ground.”
“That doesn’t really sound like Dorrik to me,” Kat frowned slightly. “They’ve always been very cautious and helpful when adventuring with me. Really, the only time I’ve even seen a flash of arrogance was with my original partner, and honestly, Dorrik was right. The guy was a terrible match for The Tower of Somnus.”
“That is one of Dorrik’s all too perfect traits,” Sikka rolled her eyes. “They are a tremendous judge of talent. Kaleek is a skilled warrior, but more than anything he serves as a relaxed and informal counterpoint for Dorrik. Even if they won’t admit it, they realize that their mannerisms can be a bit of a weakness.”
“Honestly?” Kat shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know why Dorrik picked me. They watched me fight a monster without any real skills, just a knife. Then they complimented me and offered to work with me.”
“What was the compliment?” Sikka folded her top pair of claws, resting her chin on them.
“They said I moved like someone who had killed before,” Kat replied, slightly uncomfortably. “They uh, complimented my lack of hesitation.”
“I can see why Dorrik wanted you,” Sikka nodded. “All too many of the warriors that enter The Tower of Somnus have trained for years, but all of it is in a gymnasium. They struggle to treat the fights like they are real and can’t eke out the last little bit of effort needed to bring down a boss or an elite. Clan Ahn loses some young every year, but we make sure not to fall into that trap.”
“Then why isn’t Dorrik in a team of three lokkel?” Kat asked. “It seems like their siblings would be ideal partners for them.”
“The word is clutchmates,” the big lokkel looked away from Kat, focusing her eyes on the plump flowering plants that made up the desert garden in the center of the courtyard. “Dorrik was on a team of three, but two of his clutchmates died when a passenger liner ran into an asteroid that strayed into a hyperlane. There were some rumors that the stallesp were involved, but never enough to actually make the Consensus move.”
“Oh God,” Kat winced. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to bring it up-”
“They were my children just as much as Dorrik is,” Sikka looked back at her, a sad smile on her scaly muzzle, “but Dorrik took it harder than the rest of us. As sad as our quad was, Dorrik just threw themselves completely into training only to sacrifice themself to strike back at the stallesp.”
“Only now,” Sikka continued, “almost two years later, is Dorrik actually starting to open up.”
“Right,” her eyes gleamed as she looked directly at Kat, “around the time they met you.”
Kat fought the desire to scoot away from the almost predatory look on the giant lizard’s grinning face.
“We have an hour before the welcoming ceremony, Kat,” Sikka moved closer to her, wrapping a big, scaly arm around her thin shoulders. “How could I not want to spend that time grilling someone who means so much to my child?”
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